This is part of a series on scenarios developing out of the new Iran deal. In this scenario, Iran remembers how effectively it has been able to force concessions from the West by taking a hard line. For this reason, Iran embarks upon a series of provocative violations or near-violations of the terms of the treaty, most obviously on the question of inspections. Resolution of the crises provoked by these actions comes only if the West gives in to new demands.
Under the terms of the deal, Iran can delay inspections up to 24 days without being found to be in formal violation. The President has said this is not a concern, for two reasons. First, any suspicious sites will be under some form of surveillance (probably satellite, though we could also deploy the venerable U2 for the purpose). Movement of trucks or goods in or out will therefore be watched during the 24 day delay. Second, the machinery associated with a covert nuclear weapons program is not small. Thus, there is no reason to be bothered by a 24 day delay, as they would need to move a substantial amount of things to scrub a site, and we would notice.
Iran has an excellent unconventional warfare team, however, which includes psychological warfare. A strategy to turn this apparent American advantage on its head is likely to occur to them. Dropping false hints of a covert program at specific sites would tie up inspectors and surveillance equipment. Deploying the heavy machinery necessary to move such equipment from place to place, Iran could set up the clear impression that it was in fact moving its covert program from one location to another. Each new demand for inspections comes with a 24 day delay built in. Thus, Iran could keep us guessing for as long as it wanted to do so. Very quickly it would become apparent that the only way to get inspection of the things that concerned us would be to concede yet another Iranian demand.
It is worth noting that this plan could also mask a genuine covert nuclear program. By setting up false “programs” coupled with regular observed movements, a true program could exist without us being able to distinguish it from the false ones. Iranian demands that were met would allow us to inspect the false ones only, which would set up a series of failures to find anything damning. Iran would then state that all such inspection demands should end, as they had been tried numerous times and had always failed to discover any wrongdoing. The regime would portray the endless demands by the West was harassment, and complain that the constant spying was a violation of its sovereignty. Meanwhile, the true program would be cooking along.
Moving the true covert program regularly would slow it. However, the overt work that Iran isn’t even required to hide is meant to allow Iran to approach a one-year breakout period. All that the covert program would need to do is to cover that year’s-worth of work. Iran might well decide to do this to time breakout with the end of the ballistic missile embargo. Officially this is five years away, but as Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, the language is vague. Russia is already planning to sell Iran anti-aircraft missiles. It may be emboldened to sell them ballistic missiles in advance of the official end of the embargo if it can be persuaded of a reading that is defensible. Putin also benefits from defying the West and demonstrating its weakness.
Thus, via this shell-game sequence Iran could easily reduce its breakout time so that it was able to detonate its first “test” warhead shortly after receiving ballistic missiles capable of carrying such warheads as payloads. This would give Iran a nuclear umbrella well in advance of American expectations. Rather than the deal ending fears about Iran’s covert programs, we should expect to see this deal as opening a new chapter in Iranian psychological warfare aimed at us.